Kyle watched the ball under Jane's foot intently, desperate to block it. He just had a few more seconds before the period ended, and they both knew it. He just had to hold out a little longer.
She kicked the ball to the side, intending to bounce it off the wall and around Kyle. He managed to pin it against the wall, stopping it, but then she tried to punch him. He fell backward preemptively, catching himself on the slanted wall of the goal behind him, but the ball then rolled into the goal - Jane's team controlled the ball-rolling pillar. The period ended just after the score.
"Hey, you cheated!" Kyle said. "You're not allowed to touch other players."
"And I didn't touch you. Technically I didn't cheat."
"But you tried to!"
"No, I just made it look like I was trying to so you would fall."
Kyle guessed she was right. She hadn't broken the rules, only invoked his belief that she would break the rules. It hadn't technically been a cheat. But still, it wasn't okay to do things like that. "That was still wrong," Kyle said. "You broke the spirit of the rules."
"So what? As long as I don't cheat, I can do whatever I think will help my team win."
The arena beeped, signaling the end of the period. It was time for a three-minute break. The players withdrew from the field and into their teams' shelters, for which they were grateful on this hot day, and took seats.
"We need to cheat," said Sid, a player on Kyle's team.
"Don't joke like that," Kyle said. Sid didn't answer.
"We need a strategy if we're going to recover from this," said their team's coach. They were losing 40-26. "It'll take at least five scores to put us ahead. If we get a score multiplier pillar, it'll only save us one score so I don't think we should go after that. The ball-rolling pillar will help but we already need to pull a miracle to win this and it doesn't really help us score faster so I don't think we should go for that either. The only pillar that sounds extremely useful to me is the wall-rearranging pillar. If I could give us an easy path to their goal, maybe get some of their players lost in a maze, that could allow to make several rapid scores. The robot ally pillars are always useful, of course."
The sport, Tactiball, was basically a suped-up version of soccer. The arena was like a maze that rearranged itself every period, and there were pillars you could find in it guarded by robot goalies that would provide you various bonuses if you were the last team to have hit them. Each period had different and differently located pillars. There were also several balls at once.
Sid got up and walked toward the door of the shelter. "I need some air." It was a paper-thin excuse. It was so hot out that there was no way anyone wanted 'some air' when they could be inside in the shade instead. Between that and how he had talked about cheating earlier, Kyle was worried he was going to do just that. He didn't know how one could cheat at Tactiball (besides touching other players or something), but maybe Sid knew something he didn't.
Kyle waited a few seconds, then got up and said to the coach, "Ms. Carter, I'm worried that Sid is cheating. I'm going to go make sure he isn't." Then he left.
Sure enough, he found Sid standing next to the control console (which was screen-locked during the game), inserting some sort of device into it. "Hey, Sid! What do you think you're doing?"
Sid's head zipped around. "Nothing! I don't know what you're talking about." His voice dropped to a whisper. "There are no witnesses besides you! You can't prove it!"
"Ms. Carter, I was right! Sid just put something in the control console!"
"No I didn't! He's lying to get me in trouble!"
Ms. Carter came out as well. She and Kyle came to stand next to the console, which had an indicator on it that something had been inserted into the slot. Ms. Carter ejected Sid's flash drive-looking thing and took it. "What is this, Sid?"
"Okay, fine, I was trying to cheat. That thing would have hacked the computer and let me choose which pillars to use for the next period. But you gotta understand! I'm on your side here, Ms. Carter - I'm just trying to help our team!"
"Don't do this again, Sid. Understand?"
"Of course, ma'am. I won't. Can I have that back now?"
Ms. Carter gave it back. "Let's get back inside now, I'm hot."
"That's it?" Kyle said. "You're not going to punish him?"
"He was just trying to help. He's on the same side as us, Kyle. There's no reason for me to punish him."
Kyle felt betrayed. He always looked up to those in positions of authority - supposedly they had their power for a reason and they were equipped to make the decisions it gave them the right to make, right? He always fantasized about becoming a police officer when he was older. Seeing an authority outright refuse to do justice like this was jarring.
Kyle felt bad about threatening an authority, but he had to make sure justice was done, and he didn't see any other way to do that. "If you won't punish him, I'll tell the other team's coach. There will be a big incident, and you'll wish you had just done it."
Ms. Carter was thoroughly offended, but also scared. "Kyle, I'm your coach. I have authority over you. If you betray my trust like that, you'll be the one I punish."
Kyle's voice became much weaker. "I'm sorry ma'am, but I have to make sure justice gets done. I'm giving you a chance to stop me by punishing Sid, so I'm not betraying your trust. I don't want to do this... but there's no other way."
"Dammit! Fine. You win this one, Kyle. But I'll win later, and you'll regret threatening me. I'll be sure of that."
Kyle shrunk. He was really afraid of Ms. Carter. He stood by his decision, but he wasn't going to fight her over the punishment as long as she didn't overstep her authority.
"Sid, give me the hacking device back. I'm taking it as your punishment."
"But that's not fair! It's my property!"
Kyle interjected, "Well you're not the one who cares about fairness, are you, cheater?"
Sid tried to run, but Kyle grabbed him. Ms. Carter took the device swiftly and put it in her pocket. "Now. Let's get some rest before the next period."
"We've got a big lead," Jane's coach was saying, "so our strategy is going to be to guard the goal at all costs and don't take any chances. We'll just play defense the entire period."
"We should at least scout the place out to see if there's a ball-rolling pillar or something," Jane said. "That could help a lot with defense."
"No. A bonus like that would be nice, but I want everyone to stay by the goal the whole time."
"That's stupid. I'm not doing that."
"You will. I'm telling you that's our strategy. I'm your coach."
Coaches played a much more involved role in this sport than in real life soccer, acting as full-fledged in-game tacticians. They had access to screens during the periods allowing them to see the location of all of their players as well as anything they could see. The players also had earpieces that allowed their coach to relay orders in-game but not for the players to reply, so it was considered almost a hard rule that you had to do what the coach said. But that was a stupid rule, and Jane had no obligation to follow stupid rules. "No."
"Do what you're told, Jane," said Priscilla, another girl on Jane's team.
Jane clenched her fists. She hated that phrase. "Shut up Priscilla! I'm gonna do what will help us win, not what I'm told!"
"You better not leave the goal when the game starts," the coach said.
Jane dropped the point for now. She was absolutely planning to disobey the coach's strategy, but there was no point in arguing about it now.
They waited the rest of the break period, and then entered the arena. When the game started, Jane promptly ran away from the goal to scout out the arena.
"Damn it Jane! Get back to the goal!" the coach said through her earpiece. Profanity didn't bother her; but she was still offended by him using it because most likely he did think it was wrong to use around children and was just doing it anyway because he was angry.
Jane tried to keep a mental map of the area she had scouted to avoid scouting the same area twice or getting lost. It got hard to keep in mind after a while, especially with the coach's continued shouting in her ear. She took out her earpiece and put it in her pocket.
The first pillar she found had the red color code, so she knew it activated robot allies. However, these ones only attacked. That wouldn't help defend. She kept looking.
Eventually she found a blue color-coded pillar, which meant robot defender allies. Even better than ball-rolling, since ball-rolling helped with both offense and defense and all the pillars were balanced to be more or less equally powerful overall.
There were two bots guarding it. It had a smaller goalie box than the teams' goals, though, so this shouldn't be impossible to do by herself. She just had to find a ball. (They spawned in random locations, respawning when scored.)
Jane ran off again, searching for a ball. She found one before too long and brought it back. The ball would respawn after it had been blocked five times, so she had that many tries to get it past the two robots.
She tried to make it look like she was going to shoot it to the right and then shoot it to the left, but the robots wouldn't fall for it. They stayed in the middle, one in front of the other, to cover all the area.
She shot to the far right, hoping that maybe just half the width of the goalie box would be too far for them to travel in time if she shot it fast enough. Nope. The back one got there in time easily, bouncing the ball back.
She waited a minute, contemplating her next plan. Hm... the back robot had stayed to the right for a second after blocking her shot. What if she did that again, then caught the ball and shot it to the left before the robot could return to the center? Maybe neither one would be able to get there in time.
She tried it, but she couldn't nearly make the second shot in time. It took her way too long to get into position after catching the ball after it was blocked the first time.
Two shots left. If she tried that again and failed, she would need another ball. Oh well. She tried it.
Failure. She failed to catch the ball after the bot bounced it back the first time, so it was in position again long before she was ready to take the second shot. She didn't, of course.
Last shot. This was not good. She wasn't worried about losing the game; the coach's strategy, while not optimal, was good enough to win the game from a 40-26 lead unless something crazy happened. She was more worried about her dignity. She had disobeyed the coach, and probably everyone on her team was on his side. How would it look if her disobedience ended up hurting the team? She would still have been right, of course. But it would be so embarrassing.
She waited, contemplating what to try with the last shot. But then a boy from the other team arrived with no ball. She knew his name: Sid. He saw what pillar this was, and he saw that her ball only had one shot left on it. All he had to do to stop her was kick the ball toward the robots.
Jane immediately tried to launch the ball into the air. The robots had no arms and no jumping capabilities, so an air shot would almost definitely work if she could execute it.
It worked. It was close, but it scored. The pillar's control light turned blue - the color of her team. She grinned. Take that, Sid. And more importantly, take that, Mr. Stoker.
"Crap!" Sid said. "Have I mentioned how much I wish you could attack people in this sport?"
"Me too," Jane said. They both started running toward Jane's team's goal.
When they arrived, Jane notied an unpleasant sight: robots aiding Sid's team. There were robots on both sides, not to mention almost all the players from both teams concentrated here, so it was quite crowded. There were also about seven balls in play.
Two of the players from Sid's team broke off toward the defender pillar, taking two balls with them. The others stopped attacking. Jane figured that their coach had told them not to waste shots while the robot defenders were still active.
Jane wouldn't be able to stop them from turning off the defenders on her own, so she set off to go find the attacker pillar and shut that off. She didn't tell her team what she was doing because she didn't want any enemies following her. As it was, none did.
She managed to find a ball and shut off the attacker bots. Then she set off to go to find another ball and recapture the defender pillar. She kept playing like this, and it forced the enemy team to post players by each pillar as guards to stop her. She even scored once since there was no one guarding their goal until she showed them that they needed some. It was such a loss of players that her team smashingly won the game in the end.
Mr. Stoker was waiting for Jane when they left the arena. "That was not okay, Jane! You disobeyed direct orders and put your own plan above team play! Who the hell gave you permission to do that?"
"I don't need permission! Besides, you should be thanking me. It's because of me we won by so much. We might have even lost if I had done what you said. Now you should apologize for being mean and swearing at me."
"You're way out of line, kid!" Mr. Stoker was bending down to be level with her and pointing his finger in her face. "You need to learn some respect!"
Jane slapped his hand away.
Mr. Stoker was shocked by the audacity. If Jane had been any other kid she would have been hit back much harder and probably started crying. Instead, she bolted, dodging his return strike.
Mr. Stoker - followed by Priscilla - chased after Jane as she ran into view of the other team's coach. She may have hated all authority, but she knew how to take advantage of their presence. Ms. Carter wouldn't react too well to seeing the opposing coach assaulting a little girl, so Mr. Stoker would think twice about doing it in her view, right?
Nope. Mr. Stoker got in range and tackled her.
Kyle saw what looked like the opposing coach assaulting a little girl, and Mrs. Stoker was pretending not to notice, so he ran over to intervene. "Hey! What's going on?"
"I'm being attacked! He won't get off me!"
Mr. Stoker got off, but kept a firm grip on Jane's arm. Priscilla spoke for him. "She started the violence! She disobeyed his orders, talked back to him and then actually slapped him! He's just giving her what she deserves."
"I slapped his hand because he was invading my personal space bubble!" Jane said as she continued to struggle against Mr. Stoker's grip. "He gave crap orders so I disobeyed them while he swore at me and we won because of it. He owes me more than one apology now!"
"You already punished her more than enough for slapping you," Kyle said. "Let her go."
"Don't tell me what to do, kid!" Jane started to punch him with her free arm, so he punched back much harder than a ten-year-old girl was able.
Kyle decided he couldn't allow this to go on. He didn't approve of what Jane had done, but disobedience to a coach was not grounds for swearing and this was way too much punishment for a single slap. He punched the inside of Mr. Stoker's elbow, causing him to let go of Jane.
"Thanks," Jane said as she started to run. Priscilla tried to grab her, but she dealt her a savage blow to the face and kept running. Mr. Stoker forgot about Jane and punched Kyle. "What the hell do you think you're doing, kid? You think you can hit an adult and get away with it?"
Kyle staggered. "No, I don't think I can get away with it. I'll face the consequences of my actions. But I couldn't let that go on."
Ms. Carter came over. "I'm sorry for his behavior, Mr. Stoker. I was already planning to give him detention after the game for something else."
"I have an idea. Make him stay out in the sun while we go inside."
"Good one. Kyle, stay here." The coaches led their teams indoors.
Kyle stayed outside. He didn't regret his actions, but he was willing to pay the consequences for them. He would tell his parents about all of this when they arrived, and they could take action against the coaches if they saw fit.
Jane arrived at the parking lot, and her parents were just pulling in. But then she realized she couldn't just abandon Kyle after he saved her like that. The coaches were probably punishing him now; she had to return the favor! She looked back.
He was standing alone, just outside the building. It was a relief to see the coaches weren't with him. But why wasn't he inside?
And then it occurred to her what had probably happened. She ran back over to him, taking cover in the shade of the building but outside the coaches' sight. "Hey, Kyle! Why are you standing there in the sun?"
"It's my punishment. Helping you wasn't the only way I disobeyed an authority today."
"Kyle, that's a bunch of crap! They have no right to torture you like this! Get in the shade!"
"I broke the rules knowing there would be consequences. They can do this if they want, and I'll tell my parents about it when they get here. The best way to fight corrupt authorities is to let good authorities know."
"That's not true. The best way to fight corrupt authority is to take things into your own hands." Jane punched her palm.
Kyle shook his head.
"Well, I guess you can let them torture you if you want. So what was the other thing you did?"
"I caught Sid inserting a hacking device into the control console to cheat, so I reported him to Ms. Carter. She didn't want to punish him since they were on the same side, so I threatened to tell Mr. Stoker. That convinced her to take the hacking device as punishment."
Jane paused. "That kind of makes me feel bad for Sid."
"Jane! He tried to cheat; he deserved punishment."
"But stealing his property? I wouldn't let Mr. Stoker take somthing that belonged to me if I cheated."
Other kids's parents were arriving now, and they started to come out of the building. Priscilla was the first one.
"Hey Priscilla..." Jane said as she passed. "You're a piece of crap, and I hate you."
"You can't escape punishment forever, Jane. What are you going to do next time we have practice? Mr. Stoker won't forget this."
"I'll drop out."
"That's your parents' decision, not yours!"
"No it isn't. Besides, after they hear what happened today, I'm sure they'll agree."
"I hope you break the law and get arrested someday," Priscilla said as she walked away. Jane clenched her fists, just barely deciding not to go punch her again. She said one last thing to Kyle before she left. "If you don't get out of the sun before they tell you to, you're letting the badguys win."
Sid came out next. "Hey, Kyle? I want you to know I won this day. Ms. Carter gave me the device back."
Of course... Kyle should have expected this. Ms. Carter had no reason not to undo the punishment as soon as Kyle wasn't looking. And Sid could tell him now because after what Kyle had done saving Jane and all, Mr. Stoker probably wouldn't believe him if he told him about the cheat and about Ms. Carter's unwillingness to do anything about it. It would look like an attempt to get the authority who had punished him in trouble just for revenge.
Kyle tried to punch Sid, but he ran off toward the parking lot. "So much for you and your principled little self! You lost today, Kyle!"
"You and Ms. Carter are enemies of justice! You'll get what you deserve someday!" This was the first time in a while that Kyle had been this angry. Something about Sid's blatantness really set him off. He didn't even seem to deny that he was a bad person, he just didn't care.